Photo: U.S. National Archives
How long will my new car last?
Everyone asks this question. Whether we get to enjoy that unique new car smell in exchange for a long-term car note or endure that less alluring smell of an older cheaper used car. We all want our next car to be our best car.
Sometimes that just doesn’t happen.
Even if you get your oil changes done and follow the maintenance schedule to a perfect T, sometimes a manufacturer will cheap out on a part that eventually becomes your big problem.
As someone who has spent several years inspecting, appraising and selling over 10,000 vehicles a year for an auto finance company, I have seen countless vehicles that have been traded in because the owner can’t afford an unforeseen and expensive repair. More times than not, this expensive repair happens beyond the warranty period.
What could have been a cheap and easy fix for the manufacturer quickly becomes a several thousand-dollar barnacle for the current owner. In certain cases, thousands of folks will get hit with the exact same whammy of a repair while they still owe money on the vehicle.
Three years ago I decided to do something about this. Along with statistician Nick Lariviere, we developed what would become known as the Long-Term Quality Index. This study now has over 820,000 trade-ins from all over the United States.
What we have found is that every manufacturer has made mistakes in the past, and sadly, many will play a denial to avoid reimbursing customers for those faults. But some are far guiltier than others.
Is your car one of them? Feel free to click here to search for your model or here if you want to look at how your most and least favorite brands currently perform. We plan on offering this information for free, forever.
And if you’re kicking the tires on a used car, here’s a not-so-short list of the biggest weak spots in every major brand:
Audi: The Audi A4 has notorious engine sludge issues with the 1.8-liter turbocharged engine along with oil consumption issues on the 2-liter engine that replaced it. This lead Volkswagen, which owns Audi, to offer a class action settlement on the 1.8 liter engine, and an additional class settlement on the 2.0 liter engine.
Acura: Despite Acura’s rank as our second highest brand for long-term reliability, a slew of these models had automatic transmission issues during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. This included the Acura CL, TL, and RL
BMW: The BMW 7-Series seems to be a lightning rod for long-term quality issues. From 1998 thru 2010, the model has never matched the more lenient average for the full-size luxury car segment.
Buick: The great American road is full of Buicks, and our study now has over 13,000 of them. Out of all those models only the Buick Enclave has a low long-term reliability rating due to unusually high transmission issues. The GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook are sister vehicles that also have the same issue.
Cadillac: The Northstar engine used to be the engine of death for many Cadillac owners due to head gasket issues. However the absolute worst Cadillac is the Catera which registers a score of only 12 out of 100 for long-term reliability. This is due to what can only be described as hellish engine problems.
Chevrolet: Chevy full-size trucks and SUVs offer outstanding long-term reliability across the board. However the now defunct Chevrolet Aveo suffered from timing belts that may snap prematurely, and the early five-cylinder versions of the Chevy Colorado was cast with defective cylinder heads. No recall was ever issued for these problems.
Chrysler: If you find a Chrysler with a 2.7-liter V-6 engine built between 1998 and 2010, run away. These engines resulted in five separate class action lawsuits and a lot of unhappy owners. In addition, turbocharged versions of the PT Cruiser and transmissions on the Chrysler Voyager minivan are well below average. None of these issues were ever recalled or remedied due to Chrysler’s bankruptcy in 2009.
Dodge: What tends to be true for 28,000 Chrysler trade-ins is also true for 44,000 Dodge models. The 2.7-liter engines and minivan transmissions tend to be weak points. As for other models, the 2009 and 2010 Dodge Journey has been a rolling basket case with engine and transmission issues that make it a bottom dweller in the crossover segment.
Ford: Nearly 100,000 Fords are in our database. Like Chevy, the full-size SUVs and pickups are outstanding—with a couple of big exceptions. The Navistar diesel engine which was made from 2003 thru 2007 eventually yielded a multitude of engine issues and a class action settlement. Also the 5.4-liter Triton V8 has an ongoing lawsuit alleging defects. As for transmissions, the ones in the Ford Freestyle and the 2002 thru 2008 Ford Explorer should also be avoided.
GMC: This truck brand now has a higher overall ranking than Honda—4th overall. Despite that achievement, there is one minor blip with the GMC Acadia registering more transmission issues than other full-size crossovers.
Honda: If it weren’t for the epidemic of transmission issues with V-6 equipped Hondas from 1998 thru 2004, Honda would be our top-ranked brand. Only the Isuzu built Honda Passport has ever registered a consistently low level of reliability year after year.
Hyundai: Despite its more recent models scoring well in other studies, Hyundai is not equal to other top brands according to our results. Hyundai currently ranks 21st out 38 brands with each model hanging around average with one notable exception: The Hyundai Accent experienced poor levels of reliability from 2001 thru 2004.
Infiniti: The Infiniti G20 from 1998 thru 2002 has absolutely atrocious long-term reliability. Other than that, Infiniti tends to outperform the industry averages.
Isuzu: If you buy a Rodeo, prepare to get thrown. The Isuzu Rodeo’s engine sounds like a chorus of castanets due to small engine lifters, while the transmission offers the unpleasant jolt of a rolling red bull.
Jaguar: The chance of you owning a Jaguar that will be kept past 180,000 miles is a little worse than 37 to 1. Every Jaguar in our study has terrible long-term reliability—except for the Jaguar XJ which has a few glimmers of hope; especially from 2006 thru 2008.
Kia: Kia is making their way into the big leagues of luxury with the K900. But their first try, the Kia Amanti, will be one vehicle worth forgetting if you ever want a luxurious used car. Just like Jeep, Kia put far too much weight onto a powertrain that couldn’t take the load. After over 10,000 Kia trades, we can confidently also advise you to be extra careful if you ever decide to shop for any older Kia.
Land Rover: See Jaguar. Then decrease your odds of seeing 180,000 miles to 45 to 1. The LR2, LR3, and Range Rover usually get traded-in well before 85,000 miles by tired owners while the Freelander and Discovery have engine issues that are simply beyond the pale.
Lexus: There is no such thing as a bad Lexus, other than the Lexus ES models from 1996 thru 2001 and the Lexus RX300 from 1999 thru 2002. A few of these models may experience oil sludge issues. Toyota eventually agreed in 2007 to cover all affected vehicles for 8 years and unlimited miles.
Lincoln: The Lincoln Navigator is a below average performer from 1999 thru 2008. Two other models, the Lincoln LS and Lincoln Aviator are ranked among the 10 worst overall. However if you want a Town Car or a Continental, you will likely be a happy camper. Those tend to outlast their owners.
Mazda: Apparently Millenia means “Roadside Assistance” in Japanese. The Mazda RX-8, 626 and CX-7 also perform poorly due to chronic engine issues. Like Lincoln, Mazda is an exercise in extremes with the Miata, Mazda3 and Protege all scoring average or better.
Mercury: Same curse as Mazda and Lincoln. The Cougar, Mystique and Mountaineer are below average. However, the Mountaineer (like the Ford Explorer) has a strong pre-2002 pedigree with above average reliability for all those years and powertrains.
Mercedes-Benz: Although the S430 and the ML models have a mixed record, Mercedes has a solid powertrain portfolio after 32 models and 23,760 trade-ins. However larger engines for the heavier vehicles tend to outperform the smaller ones. No surprises there.
MINI: Manuals do far better than automatics and the non-turbo engine outperforms the S models. But the brand is still the absolute worst one in our study.
Mitsubishi: What Mercedes does, Mitsubishi appears to do even better. Ranked 7th overall, every Mitsubishi model is ranked average or better except for the Diamante which was discontinued back in 2004, and the Eclipse also performs poorly from 2003 on back.
Nissan: Nissan offers the trio of doom in the form of the 2005 thru 2007 Pathfinder, Xterra, and Frontier. The defect levels on these three vehicles are jaw dropping due to cracked radiators which eventually let coolant intermix with the vehicle’s transmission fluid. Unlike Toyota, Nissan is enforcing high deductibles and low mileage limitations to limit their financial liability on what many consider to be a fatal flaw.
Pontiac: Other than plastic intake manifolds, which plagued General Motors engines for years, the 17,340 Pontiacs traded-in thus far show average long-term reliability. One shocker though is that the Pontiac Grand Prix (4,400 vehicles) has more than half the number of cars with over 180,000 miles than the entire 26,000 strong Volkswagen fleet. The anvil-reliable GM 3.8 liter V-6 is a big reason for that.
Porsche: Intermediate shafts have been an issue with Porsches built from 1997 to 2008 with an estimated failure rate of 8% to 10%. When the shafts do fail, the engines follow suit. Porsche did recall many of the 2001 thru 2005 models that suffered this engine defect. But others before and after this time period are still out there.
SAAB: A SAAB doesn’t die. It just lasts for years on end with the check engine light on. Actually, that’s not quite true. Older SAABs have engine sludge issues and you should be keenly aware of the oil change regimen for any used Saab 9-3 or 9-5.
Saturn: Unlike Pontiac, there are a few chapters in Saturn’s history that are not worth remembering. The thankfully forgotten Saturn L300 had the same defective V6 as the Cadillac Catera. Also, the belt driven CVTs on Saturn VUEs from 2003 thru 2005 and most recent Saturn Outlook transmissions all come from a far more fragile point in time.
Scion: No news here. Four-cylinder front wheel drive cars tend to be a Toyota strong suit, The tC sports compact has the lowest rating of ‘average’ due to minor engine issues while all other models are well above average.
Subaru: Head gasket issues have plagued Subaru four-cylinder engines for a long time. This has the cumulative effect of pulling every Subaru model (except the Tribeca) into a below average ranking in our study.
Suzuki: There are two types of Suzukis. Those that are actually made by Suzuki (XL7, Kizashi, Grand Vitara, Aerio), and those made by a Korean company named Daewoo (Forenza, Reno, Verona). The last ‘real’ Suzukis which come with a seven-year / 100,000 mile powertrain warranty are the hidden gems of the used car market.
Toyota: As with Lexus, the V-6 3.0 liter models from 1997 thru 2002 have a tendency to accumulate engine sludge if the oil is not changed frequently. However this doesn’t stop the Toyota Avalon from that era, which only came with that V-6 engine, to rank among the 10 best vehicles overall for long-term reliability.
Volkswagen: There are few riskier investments in life when it comes to cars than an older Volkswagen with a 1.8 liter turbocharged engine or the 2.0 liter TSI engine that followed in 2005. However the older turbodiesels with a 5-speed manual are true standouts in all the right ways.
Volvo: Lifetime fluids along with electrical issues are what killed Volvo’s once world-class reputation for durability—every model that has numbers between 60 and 90, and was built after the year 2000 suffers from abnormally high automatic transmission issues. As an old-school brick enthusiast, I find this is a depressing reality.
Everyone knows of a lemon that gave their owner an unpleasant squeeze, so feel free to share your story below.